ANNAPOLIS – Child advocates are calling 1998 the best legislative session in memory, with passage of bills that upgrade standards and salaries for child welfare workers and make it easier to take children from abusive — even murderous — parents.
“If you roll the clock back four or five months, we wouldn’t have imagined we’d get this much,” said Charles Cooper, a member of the child advocacy coalition that united its lobbying efforts this session.
State officials predict that the changes could be felt as soon as Oct. 1, when parental rights to 4,000 children in state foster care will be terminated, leaving most eligible for adoption. The final two-thirds of the current caseload is expected to moved into permanent placement by October 1999.
The average child in the Maryland foster care system stays for nearly four years — an increase of 65 percent in the last decade. And as children get older, their likelihood of adoption drops.
Advocates attribute the long stays in state care to two chronic weaknesses in the child welfare system: Poor hiring practices for caseworkers and laws that make it too hard for courts to sever custodial rights of abusive parents, even those who have killed other children.
The two major child welfare bills that passed this year are aimed at correcting those weaknesses.
The issue of terminating parental rights came to the forefront after a Montgomery County judge last summer gave Latrena Pixley custody of her 2-year-old son, who had been placed with a foster mother after Pixley murdered his infant sister.
Under a bill approved by lawmakers, Maryland judges will be able to sever rights on those grounds alone. It will also become easier to rule that a child has been abandoned.
For decades, the priority under state and federal policies was to return children to their natural parents, making it hard to draw the line against those who chronically failed to care for their children or showed little interest in claiming them.
“As it stands now, if a 2-year-old child is left in a parking lot and the parent never returns, we can’t call that child abandoned,” said Ellen Mugmon of the Maryland chapter of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children.
The new policies should change that, and reward the state in the process — the changes will bring Maryland into compliance with recent federal law that gives cash incentives for each child moved into a permanent home.
The 1,500 caseworkers who evaluate those families were the subject of another bill passed in the session’s final days.
New regulations call for caseworker competency tests and higher educational standards for new hires. Temporary child welfare workers — who receive no benefits and currently make up 20 percent of the workforce — will be phased out, and the state must come up with a plan to cut worker caseload and boost salaries.
Proponents say these measures will cut high caseworker turn-over and ultimately improve services to children and families. The bill’s $13 million cost is expected to be split with the federal government.
“The buck starts here,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, and sponsor of the caseworker standards bill. “If we are not successful with these children, they end up in the juvenile justice system.”
McIntosh originally called for 300 new caseworkers to be hired this year, but later became convinced that few professionals would sign on for state work until pay is improved.
Top pay for state social workers with a master’s degree is currently $27,000 a year. In a recent regional comparison, the Department of Human Resources found that only West Virginia pays its caseworkers less.
“This is the most significant bill with the most long-reaching effect, but it will have to be followed up with compensation,” said Steve Buckingham, lobbyist for Maryland’s chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
While McIntosh figures staff improvements will save money in the long run by cutting the length of time children stay in state care, she said that is not her prime motivation.
“This is not about saving money, but about saving lives,” she said.